Researchers at the University have helped discover the horned dinosaur, the needle-free flu vaccine and, most famously, the polio vaccine. Our political scientists have defined what it means to be a nation-state and what it means to be at war. As one of the nation’s leading research universities, the University has earned a reputation for the high quality of its diverse research. The significant investments in the Life Sciences at Michigan initiative are intended to bolster that reputation even further. In short, this institution’s commitment to cutting-edge research is sound, but its commitment to undergraduate education is lacking.
The University’s prestige and its collection of accomplished professors draw students to Ann Arbor. Too often, however, the focus on research makes professors inaccessible to the undergraduate students who dole out thousands of dollars each semester for a high quality education.
The University offers numerous incentives for professors to receive funds from outside sources through research grants. These professors are allowed to teach fewer courses than those professors not conducting research. For example, physics professors without research projects teach an average of two courses per semester, while those who are conducting research only teach one. As 95 percent of physics professors have had a research project within the last two years, most of the professors teach only one course every semester. While this arrangement may be a reasonable tradeoff between teaching and research, the department’s policies take this value on research a step further. Professors who obtain large research grants may pay the department for a replacement to teach the course for a semester so they may dedicate their time solely to research.
The highly publicized Life Sciences at Michigan is an $888 million re-affirmation of the importance of research to the University. The nine professors within the Life Sciences Institute are allowed to teach fewer courses than their departments allow. Instead of the two courses a chemistry professor is expected to teach, an LSI faculty member will have to teach only one course. Instead of viewing the LSI merely as a means of increasing the prominence of the University’s research status, administrators, faculty and students should view it as an opportunity to improve undergraduate education as well. Undergraduates could utilize the state-of-the-art facilities in order to conduct their own research.
Tying undergraduates into the University’s research projects and requiring more prominent professors to teach undergraduates courses would allow undergraduates the opportunity to enjoy aspects of the University too often restricted to graduate students.